It's not as if there's nothing in the state of Nebraska except football. You can go to a museum in Lincoln and see the fossil of the world's largest elephant. Or sit on a fence and wait for a pheasant to fly up. Or go to any town and applaud the changing traffic signal, booing when it gets stuck on yellow.
Or you can do some dull things. It's up to you. What happened, for those of you who slept through this in school, is that when God went to work creating Nebraska, He thought: "O.K., I keep giving other areas of this country mountains, beaches, stuff like that. Everywhere I look, beauty. I need a change." What resulted is a landscape of wall-to-wall dust. It's the perfect environment if you're a vacuum sweeper. To try to make up, God later gave Nebraska football.
Despite having to listen to all this verbal abuse and funning from snooty outsiders, Nebraska residents long have been able to gather themselves together and boast of the untold wonders of the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers. Nobody could josh them on that. It is this understandable and justifiable love of Big Red football that made the fans nervous early this fall. For, sad to report, Nebraska is engaged in what coaches call a rebuilding year. That means stand by for losing. Nebraska coaches didn't say that but the panicky look in their eyes was clear as the season approached.
That's because 1974 was the last for the Huskers' alltime whizbang quarterback, Dave Humm; Don Westbrook, who scored 10 touchdowns; all the linebackers; both starting guards; both starting offensive tackles; and the guy who ushers in Section 14. That's a mess of folks to replace, even for Nebraska.
But people from Weeping Water to McCool Junction took heart, because they were promised this was a temporary malady that would be righted in 1976, mostly because of splendid freshmen enrolled this fall. Come next season, the word was, the Huskers would be plenty well enough to challenge for lots of things, including the national title.
Make no mistake. Even when Nebraska is rebuilding, it still has a talent overload, with more players who can play than nearly any other team in the country. The problem is that football is so much a state project and success in the endeavor so thirsted after that even nine wins out of 12 games, which is what happened in 1974, doesn't get raves. Nebraska doesn't want any old rung on the Top 10 ladder; it wants the highest.
So what has happened? At this point in the Year of the Rebuild, Nebraska is 8-0. And thinking about its chances for its first national championship since way back in 1971. Oldtimers will remember that year's Bob Devaney-coached team was voted the best in college football history. But this year's model isn't bad.
Nebraska reconfirmed its suspected wonders last Saturday when it thumped a good Missouri team in Columbia 30-7. "I'm afraid we bring out the best in Nebraska," moaned Missouri Coach Al Onofrio. The game turned on a number of flaming foul-ups involving kicking. Impressive, though, was how Nebraska went about its day's work in such a thoroughly professional—oops, excuse the term, Mr. Byers—manner.
"I thought we looked pretty good," said Coach Tom Osborne, in what amounts to an extravagant statement for him. Conversely, when he's beside himself with anger, he says, "Dad gum it." The significance of this win is that Nebraska will go into the Nov. 22 game against Oklahoma with a 10-0 record. Oh, sure, the Huskers must play Kansas State this week and Iowa State the next, but the question is not whether Nebraska will win but whether its players need bother wearing helmets.
"This team," says Osborne, "wants to win more than any team I've had. Of course, wanting to and doing it are quite different." Against Missouri, Nebraska paired these ingredients.